Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Much has been made of the Northeastern Iowa Synod Council’s expression of disapproval toward the votes on ministry policies from the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. (For more details on these resolutions and 60+ reader comments, check out Pretty Good Lutherans.)
I have followed the reaction to the synod council’s vote with more than a passing interest, as my dad is the bishop in that synod. One of the most curious responses has been from folks wondering “why is the bishop silent?" For many, the underlying implication is “if the bishop made this decision, why isn’t he explaining it to congregations?" I suppose it’s a reasonable question for people who are unaware of the role of bishop. The reality is this -- ELCA bishops cannot make unilateral declarations of synod-wide ministry policies or roster status. They work within the framework of decision-making bodies (typically committees and councils that are 60% lay and 40% clerty) to uphold good order within the roster of pastors and other leaders.
In the same way that the sexuality votes at CWA were more about scripture than sexuality, the months afterward have mostly been about teaching people the intricacies of how our church functions. Bishop Ullestad attempts to clarify some of these things in a “pastoral letter” that he sent to the congregations in NE Iowa. The full text is below. Comments and reflections are invited.
December 4, 2009
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Grace to you and peace in this season of Advent anticipation and hope.
At its November 14, 2009 meeting, the synod council passed two resolutions in response to the actions of the churchwide assembly votes on ministry policies and the social statement on Human Sexuality. These resolutions were passed after thoughtful conversation by a majority vote. The resolution addressing the "bound conscience" clause of the churchwide resolutions was adopted by a vote of 10 in favor, 5 opposed and 1 abstention. The memorial requesting that the ELCA church council repudiate and rescind the actions of the churchwide assembly passed by a vote of 8 in favor, 6 who were opposed and 2 abstentions. Both resolutions have been sent to all rostered persons in our synod.
We have received several responses to the actions of the synod council. There are those who are grateful for the resolutions and others that are experiencing deep pain due to the votes. Some are asking questions about the authority of the synod council to pass such resolutions while many are asking about the implications for local congregations in the call process, the candidacy committee and the decisions that are made by the bishop. The resolutions test the implications of the churchwide decisions for our synod. I have been asked by those who oppose the decisions and by those who support the decisions to "make a ruling" in this regard. I have chosen not to do so for the following reasons.
We are Lutherans. We believe that the Christian faith and the implications of the Gospel have not simply been given to the church through an unbroken chain charted back to St. Peter. We believe that the Gospel and its implications for our daily lives have been given to all who confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Consequently, it is the calling of the people of God and not the bishop or Conference of Bishops to determine the ethics of the church. That is why we engage the whole church in the development of social statements and have votes by those who have been elected by the people, the laity and pastors of the churchwide assembly and synod council, in order to determine the policies of the church. An individual bishop, The Conference of Bishops, any unit of the churchwide office and the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA have no legislative authority in this regard. It is the vote of the people that makes this determination.
The people of God, assembled in Minneapolis, determined that local congregations would decide whether or not they wished to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable couples who are in life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships. The church, gathered at the churchwide assembly, also decided to allow for "structured flexibility" in determining whether or not persons in such relationships could be approved for ordination and serve as pastors. The language of the resolutions makes provision for the "bound conscience" of "any congregation, candidacy committee, synod or bishop.”
In the same way that some synods and congregations have voted in the past to be "Reconciling in Christ" synods or congregations, our synod council has voted to continue the traditional standards for ordination and the calling of a pastor. This resolution will be brought to the 2010 Synod Assembly for consideration.
Our synod will now be engaged in conversations about what this means for our life together. What is meant by the churchwide assembly’s action that allows for the bound conscience of a candidacy committee and a synod? Is the action of the synod council and potential action of the synod assembly, a higher authority than the local congregation's authority to call any pastor that it chooses who is on the roster of the ELCA? Is a decision of the synod council or synod assembly a higher authority than the bound conscience of any individual that is serving on the candidacy committee? Standards of discipline for rostered persons are churchwide policies and not synodical. Does the action of the synod council add to, change or challenge those policies, or is it subservient to them?
The resolution passed by the synod council "encourages" the synod bishop to maintain the traditional standards for the roster. If a congregation chooses to call a pastor in a "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same gender relationship", does the bishop have the authority to refuse to sign such a call? If a bishop's signature on a letter of call simply "attests" to an ELCA congregation calling an ELCA pastor and does not indicate an approval or appointment by the bishop, on what basis would a bishop not sign a call? If a bishop’s “bound conscience” would be the basis for such a decision, is that a greater power than a congregation’s call?
My concern continues to be the theology of the church in the midst of this very important conversation. I have asked that we consider a Lutheran understanding of scripture, the manner in which we embrace dialectical tension in our theology and the importance for any consideration to be grounded in scripture and the theology of the church.
I believe that pastors, whether serving in the office of bishop or in congregations, are the "spiritual parents" for the community of faith. As that parent for our synod, it is important for me to allow the family to be engaged in this conversation within certain parameters. I will not solve this problem for our synod or church. I will help to maintain the boundaries of the conversation, reminding us of our theology, the implications for the eighth commandment, and the powerful witness of our oneness in Christ in the midst of difficult and challenging times.
Families have been destroyed because they could not find a way to have a conversation on the topic of homosexuality. This is our opportunity to provide a witness to them about how we can remain one in Christ, share our deep faith convictions and remain together for the sake of Christ's mission in the world.
It is my fervent prayer that we will continue to trust the people of God with making decisions about the ministry of their congregations and our church. We remember together that there is nothing that will separate us from the love of God, that our unity in Christ is greater than any disagreement and that none of us will do anything to injure or weaken the remarkable mission of our church. I have no question, that the depth and breadth of that mission is unmatched. I will be working to continue to strengthen our church even further.
Thank you for joining me in that calling.
Your Partner in Mission,
The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Ullestad
Sunday, November 22, 2009
I'm confused...and I'm hoping that someone can enlighten me.
In September the Lutheran CORE group met to discuss next steps after the human sexuality vote at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly. The two major decisions to come out of this assembly were to (A) create a free-standing, non-geographic synod and (B) wait one year to make any formal decisions about creating a new denomination.
Less than two months later, the leadership board of Lutheran CORE announced its decision to create a new denomination. What happened to one year for prayer and discernment? I'm perplexed why a group of people who regularly complain about the unhealthy bureaucratic structure in the ELCA would go against the expressed wishes of those gathered in Indianapolis.
I'm also not sure what a "free-standing, non-geographic" synod means. To my understanding, if the ELCA is going to create a new synod, it's up to the churchwide assembly to make this happen. At this point, the 65 ELCA synods are all carry geographic distinction. How will this new synod function within the ELCA if it doesn't play by the rules that govern the denomination?
In the spirit of koinonia, I'm hoping for a healthy conversation in this space about what Lutheran CORE is hoping to accomplish in the days ahead.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
I recently had a chance to preview the latest "Christian" movie to attempt mainstream relevance. To Save A Life is the story of an all-American kid who wrestles with typical teenage issues; namely sex, drinking, parents, friendship, and religion. I entered the screening highly skeptical of Christian film making. The last two overtly Christian movies I had seen were awful. The acting was abysmal, the writing was predictable, and the theology was borderline offensive. I had prepared myself for a similar production.
To my surprise, To Save A Life was legit. The writer (a youth pastor) tackles the aforementioned issues honestly and realistically. The high school kids talk to each other like actual teens, curse words and all. The main character's religious conversion was relatively nuanced and believable. Even the theology was rooted in openness, acceptance, and "the unconditional love of God".
This is not to say that Life is flawless. The acting is still on par with most After School Specials. The characters are thinly developed, despite more than enough time spent in the first hour setting up the roles. There are several corny scenes, not the least of which was the protagonist's oceanic baptism. The youth pastor was too prominently involved for my liking. I didn't like how the main character stopped hanging out with his friends once he became a Christian.
These complaints aside, To Save A Life was the best Christian film I've seen. The production value is as good as any in the teen movie genre. It will be worth renting and discussing with senior high students once it comes out on DVD. For more information, check out the official website, Twitter feed, and one of the better movie reviews around.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
As I was ranting against the "evils" of Show Choir a while back, my friend Angie had an idea of creating a devotional booklet that our young showstoppers could take on their weekend road trips. We put together a group of 10 one-page devotions that we thought would speak to people in the performing arts. Our friend Megan designed a funky cover as well. I've posted Word and PDF versions of "LISTEN", the Show Choir Devotional.
Please share and distribute this free resource to people who might find it useful.
Friday, November 6, 2009
On Tuesday, my grandfather took a flight with about 350 World War II veterans to the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. They arrived at the airport around 2:00 a.m. and returned home later that night around 11:00 p.m. I drove my grandparents to the check-in site and had a chance to listen to a few stories.
I was most fascinated to hear them speak about "the war to end all wars". For them - and for many in their generation - there seemed to be an altruistic mentality surrounding WWII. This was a war that needed to be fought because it would ultimately result in peace for their children, grandchildren, and so on. Call it naive...call it wishful thinking...call it 1940s USA propaganda -- I think they really believed that their efforts in this war would bring about the end to all future wars.
I'm not a fan of war. I oppose the two wars I've been alive to see. I think Jesus is clear that violence and aggression are not the way to resolve conflict. I also believe that the Honor Flights have been a beautiful gift to the men and women who are seeking closure and respect. I can't imagine what it would be like to fight in a war. I pray I never have to.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
People on Twitter and Facebook have seen me complain lately about the glacial speed of my church's Internet connection. I realize that such gripes make me sound petty and spoiled. Obviously, there are lots of other injustices in the world greater than my inability to download videos or music at my workplace. My point is not that functional Internet is the most important issue in the world...instead, I wish to proclaim that churches should no longer consider Internet to be a luxury.
This gap in understanding can best be summed up in something I read at Harris Interactive the other day. A recent poll indicated that the average U.S. teen spends 10 hours a week on the Internet. (This wasn't terribly surprising.) However, U.S. parents thought teens spent about 4 hours a week on the Internet. There is a 24-hour-a-month discrepancy between how much teens are on-line and how much their parents think they are on-line.
If adults don't have a realistic understanding of how much their children use the Internet, it shouldn't surprise me that adults at church (most of whom don't have teens in their house) don't perceive a need for a church to be technologically adept. It's also not entirely their fault -- many of us in youth ministry haven't demonstrated exactly WHY it's so important for us to have quality Internet access at church. It's much easier for us to use wi-fi at a coffee shop or our home than to plead our case at council meetings for the necessity of Internet.
(Of course, this establishes all kinds of bad work boundaries and passes on a financial burden on the church worker, either in the form of $2-3 cups of coffee or $30+ in monthly Internet charges.)
So why is it so important for a church to have sufficiently fast and strong Internet? Here are a few reasons:
1. Inexpensive resources. When I started working at a church in 2001, the best $200 you could spend was on curriculum and leader guides from Group, Youth Specialties, Youth & Family Institute, etc. Fast-forward 8+ years, and you can make a case that youth workers shouldn't need to spend a dime on materials. A person just needs the technology resources and know-how to unearth the wealth of useful information at their fingertips.
2. Communication. Most teens spend 1-2 hours on-line every day. A majority of parents and adult leaders work in an office where they are constantly connected via email and other networking sites. Name another "place" where a critical mass of parishioners are hanging out on a regular basis. Why not make it as easy as possible for people to engage church members where they are?
3. Efficiency. It's a waste of the church's time and money resources to have staff people waiting for web pages, attachments, messages, video and music files to load.
4. Outreach. A friend of mine recently told me that a church web site is "the first set of doors a visitor walks through." If a church has empowered staff people with leadership in the congregation, why not give them the tools to be as welcoming as possible? The presence of functional Internet allows churches to be more nimble, better communicators, and...
...I could go on, but the coffee shop with wi-fi is closing...
Monday, October 26, 2009
Saturday night I participated in the 4th annual Reggie's Sleepout...but it was the third time I had done something like it. When I first moved to Des Moines in 2003, the first youth minister to befriend me was Brent. One day, while sharing a cup of coffee, he shared an idea for a joint ministry event called a "Lock Out". This was a counter to the classic youth lock-in, where kids stay up all night playing ridiculous games and drinking too much Mountain Dew. It sounded like a cool idea, so I hopped on board.
On a chilly October night, our group hung out at the homeless youth outreach center, did a simulation of what it's like to buy food on a limited budget, and had a midnight prayer service underneath an interstate overpass where many homeless people sleep in the winter. We slept under the stars or in cardboard boxes in the yard at Brent's church and enjoyed some gloopy pancakes cooked over a propane stove.
Reggie's Sleepout was quite a different experience, but an equally powerful one. Our group experienced the struggles of unpredictable weather, long lines for food, and having to work together in cramped environment with limited resources. We had a good post-Sleepout conversation at the Drake Diner, where I posed the question: "What do we do with the 3,000+ homeless youth in Polk County?" We found no easy answers, but lots of faithful discussion. The awareness raised by our participation in the Sleepout lit a fire within some of our young people.
Here is some more information about this unique event:
- Reggie's Sleepout recap
- An opinion piece featuring local homeless youth, Kaitlin Nelson
- An extended article on Howard Croweagle who works for Youth Shelter Services
- The Reggie's Sleepout Twitter feed
- Official website
Pretty Good Lutherans did a great piece on Reggie's Sleepout
Here are a few pictures I took of the "construction" process.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The challenge with all ministry is to find the sweet spot of being counter-cultural while embracing the cultural realities that people face outside of church. Abandoning the old Luther League model of ministry is only helpful if a different model emerges. My belief is that youth ministry requires a more holistic approach to youth, church, and spirituality. Here are some ways to give life to this new approach:
1. Encourage kids to use their gifts at church. Make sure young people fill out a time-and-talent list or spiritual gifts inventory. Encourage their involvement in the entire church's ministry, as their gifts and interests dictate. Avoid the temptation to exclusively plug kids in to youth activities. Integrating youth in the life of the congregation will help everyone to move from "us vs. them" to "we".
2. Forge connections. Joining a new small group, class, or ministry group can be intimidating for anyone, regardless of age. Help young people connect with someone in their new group that will look out for them. You might need to contact this prospective mentor in advance and ask them to help assimilate the young person.
3. Encourage kids to use their gifts outside of church. Christians are a sent people. Churches should help young people find ways to live faithfully in the midst of their seemingly mundane routine. Educate yourself about civic, academic, or social justice groups that provide a natural avenue for them to live out their faith. Check in with young people throughout the week to inform them of these opportunities.
4. Offer several age-specific entry points at church. Just because Luther League died doesn't mean there is no longer value in bringing teens together. Consider balancing occasional large group activities with a variety of small group opportunities. For example, the church where I work offers a Wednesday evening Bible study, Sunday morning breakfast club, and Sunday evening service / fellowship events. None of these are times that even half of the total active youth are present. While there are times that I lament that "only" a handful of people are present in any one time, I know that more people are connected with a peer group because there are multiple options each week.
These are just a few ideas of how to move from a Luther League model to a more holistic model of youth ministry. None of these are truly new (there are no new ideas) - but perhaps we have reached a point where we need to bid farewell to an old definition of success and embrace a different approach to guiding young people along their journey of faith.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
For over 90 years, youth ministry in Lutheran congregations was united under one name -- Luther League. The primary function of Luther Leagues was to gather at church each week. These gatherings incorporated fun activities, service projects, and planning for future events. In most churches, this was the important time and place for youth to gather; often trumping attendance in worship. (For a more thorough account of the history of Luther Leagues, check out this video.)
There are three major why I believe this model of ministry is dead:
1. Full inclusion is key. If teenage youth are to be considered full members of a church, they should have full participation in all of the church's ministry. If the most important aspect of a young person's church involvement is a weekly peer group, they are merely a prosthetic appendage to the body of Christ. By shifting the focus away from weekly youth group, young people are freed and encouraged to use their gifts in more edifying ways. Their church experience looks less like an extension of high school classroom and more like a genuinely diverse religious community.
2. Kids are busy. I'm willing to believe that there was a time that Sunday night was considered sacred by schools, clubs, families, and churches. It's time that we accept the present reality that this is no longer true. What message are we sending young people if they can't participate in the life of a congregation because they have another commitment on Sunday nights? The Luther League model dictates that the weekly youth group is the one-stop-shop for all your Christian needs. Why eliminate the one way they can connect with a faith community because of a schedule conflict?
3. It's not about numbers. Because kids are busy, it's unrealistic to gauge the number of "active youth" by finding out who attends youth group. However, the expectation remains for most youth ministry leaders to provide a regular event that all youth will attend. This leads to the dreaded question - "how many kids do you have at youth group?" Why do we do this to ourselves? Is a young person's presence at youth group more valid than singing in the choir, reading the lessons, serving on a committee, or teaching Sunday School? Furthermore, isn't worship attendance a better barometer of an active, faithful Christian than youth group attendance? When determining the number of adults in a congregation, we ask for worship attendance numbers...but when determining the number of youth in a congregation, we ask for youth group attendance numbers. Is this an accurate reflection of our priorities?
I have some ideas of how to shift from Luther League to a new kind of youth ministry...I'll share them tomorrow.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
It was my first wedding anniversary and I was stuck in the worst place imaginable -- a seminary classroom. I was wrapping up my final week of Youth Ministry Certification School at Wartburg Seminary, listening to Dr. Nathan Frambach talk about “post-modernism”. I didn’t care about the topic and I didn’t want to be there. For some reason, however, my frustration turned to curiosity. “If this post-modernism thing is real,” I thought, “it should be a no-brainer for Lutherans.”
* * * * *
In the past few years, the emerging church has become the unofficial branch of post-modern Christians. The lack of organizational structure or defining documents makes the emerging church movement undoubtedly post-modern, and also extremely difficult to talk about. My quest to find a singular definition of emerging church has yielded zero results. The best explanation I’ve seen is in the Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger manifesto Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005):
Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.
To which I reply – “Sounds like a bunch of Lutherans!” As a group of Christians who are willing to acknowledge the complexity of faith, we are wired to thrive in a post-modern world. Lutherans live in the tension between sinner and saint; between the shared absolutes of Word-alone, grace-alone, and Christ-alone. We rely on the redemptive power of God’s grace and use it as fuel for a life of selfless giving in response to this gift. Our reliance on ancient, sacred practices helps us embrace the importance of mystery and history, while simultaneously being compelled by the power of the Gospel to act in the here-and-now.
* * * * *
If my eight years as a youth minister and six years as a father have taught me anything, it’s that religion must be focused on commonalities. No two Christians agree on everything; but every Christian agrees on most things. We have been on a 500-year detour since the Reformation that has brought far more division than union to the church. We see disagreements as the end of a conversation and not the beginning of a new layer of discourse. There are thousands of denominations worldwide, each offering their own niche of Christianity, but none of them fully whole because they are defined by distinctions with “those other” Christians.
This is why I think that our future as a denomination depends on our ability to engage the emerging church conversation. Consider the emerging church conversation to be the next wave of the ecumenical movement. Over the course of the last decade, the ELCA has entered into full-communion agreements with six other denominations. These agreements have given post-modern Lutherans a strong foundation with which to build other partnerships. Emerging groups from every major protestant tribe -- Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians -- have found ways to be the body of Christ that honor the uniqueness of each other’s traditions while celebrating a shared passion for the Great Commission. These faith communities are not creating watered-down versions of their proud churches. They are, instead, teaching each other the beauty of religious diversity that is both gospel-centric and mission-focused. They are doing God’s work together, as a response to the gift of God’s grace.
Sounds like a bunch of Lutherans.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
There are currently over 900 contributions in the ELCA section of this site. This could be a great resource for those who write their own curriculum and wish to share it and those who need a push in their own planning. I know that we, as a church, have lots of great programming ideas and there are many ways where others can help fill in our own growth areas.
The ceiling for this kind of open-source file sharing site is virtually unlimited. Imagine how we could change how we "do church" differently if we could tap into each other's creative gifts...for free!
In the spirit of koinonia, I encourage everyone to think of at least one concept, program, file, or resource that you could share with other church leaders at feautor.org...and take some time to see what shared items you might benefit from.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
When I was in 7th grade, one of my class projects was "Images of Greatness". The purpose was to do extended research on a person we considered to be great. Then, near the end of the year, we would dress up like our person and offer clues to the audience who had gathered (mostly parents). We would end our speech with a standard question: "Who Am I?" The audience would call out the famous person's name after the question was asked. Almost every person was easily identifiable, if not by their costume than by the descriptive clues offered by the 12-year olds. (It's not difficult to find distinguishing costumes for Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan, Ben Franklin, or Betsy Ross.)
However, there was one obscure "famous" person that stumped the entire crowd. My friend Matt chose his great uncle as his image of greatness. Matt spoke of how his great uncle had won the Nobel Peace Prize and was credited with saving over 1 billion people from certain death due to starvation and famine. He gave clues about how this man grew up the small town of Cresco, IA and eventually became a world-renown leader in agronomy and would be called the "Grandfather of the Green Revolution." He had recently started the World Food Prize to recognize other people who were finding ways to improve food security in developing nations. The list went on and on. The biographical clues were thorough. Matt's attire - denim and flannel with a straw hat on his head and a stalk of wheat in his mouth - was spot-on.
And yet when he asked "Who Am I?"...the crowd was silent.
The audience members looked around with confused looks on their faces. Certainly someone in the crowd had heard of this man's heroic feats. Finally, Matt's parents both exclaimed, "NORMAN BORLAUG" as the audience nodded with equal parts embarrassment and awe.
I received similar responses yesterday when I told some of my friends that Dr. Borlaug had passed away on Sunday night at the age of 95. In one sense, it's a shame that more people don't know about this life-saving miracle worker who worked tirelessly to end world hunger. On the other hand, it's rare to find genuine humility in a truly great man.
Dr. Borlaug's life (along with the lectionary text from Mark 9:30-37) is the subject of a Faith Lens study that I wrote for the ELCA. You can read it here. The New York Times ran his obituary on Monday. Borlaug will be honored with a memorial service at Texas A&M University on October 6. Let's give God thanks for the life and ministry of this true image of greatness.
Friday, September 11, 2009
So I decided to hold a prayer service that night, as so many other churches were doing. The purpose was to sing hymns of lament and trust, offer silent and spoken prayers, and be in the presence of God and one another. This was way out of my league...but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
The sanctuary was packed. Allison (my wife) played piano. I read some prayers. A few people sang. Everyone cried. After about 45 minutes, I offered a benediction and encouraged people to linger in the narthex if they want to talk, shared, and reflect. As I was about to have everyone "go in peace", Mike stood up and started talking...
* * *
Mike was a son of the congregation who had recently discerned a call to ordained ministry. He lived with his wife and two daughters across the street from the church. Mike had enrolled in a local community college to get the necessary undergraduate credits before heading to seminary. Though some in the church had their reservations about Mike's prospects as a pastor, everyone was supportive of him.
* * *
Mike was speaking to those assembled at the prayer service about his own anger, confusion, and doubt surrounding the events that took place earlier in the day. He went on for more than 10 minutes. A few people started leaving. Others were becoming noticeably agitated by his impromptu sermon. I interjected by thanking Mike for his reflections and encouraged him to continue the conversation in the narthex. But he kept talking. And talking. 15 minutes...18...20...25...30. More people left. Most stayed. I sensed it was out of courtesy.
Finally, an old man stood up. His white hair and large glasses covered most of his face, looking like Santa's disheveled brother. He stood hunched over, but spoke with a resonance.
"I believe it's time for us to go home, Mike."
These words seemed to offend our prodigal pastor-in-waiting. Mike rebuked the old man, who didn't back down either. They gently barked back and forth at each other a couple of times. The mood was tense. At this point, most people were grabbing their personal items and heading for the door. I interjected a word of thanks and then left the sanctuary. It was an unfortunate end to the prayer service, but, in many ways, it captured the raw emotion that everyone was feeling at the time. Nobody really knew what to do. Everyone was scared...confused...angry. I, for one, was grateful for the old man who helped Mike to see that there was a better time and place for such a rant.
A few weeks later, Mike drove out to a local park and shot himself in the head. The end of his cryptic 9/11-themed suicide note simply said, "The Devil wins again".
My heart immediately ached for Mike's wife and children...but it didn't take long before I thought of the old man who had the courage to say to Mike what everyone else was thinking. I worried that he might blame himself for contributing to Mike's emotional unraveling. Worse yet, I feared that this small town would look for someone to blame for Mike's suicide, and would make this old man - who kept to himself and lived out in the country - the scape goat.
I came to find out that the old man was an ELCA pastor who did interim work in another synod. He had wrestled with the way he handled Mike ever since the prayer service, and had become even harder on himself after Mike died. He found refuge in the local auto body shop; a one-man operation run by a born-again Lutheran. They shared many conversations and cans of Pepsi in the weeks ahead. Eventually, I'm told, the old pastor was able to forgive himself for doing nothing other than speaking the truth in love.
I had forgotten about the old pastor until this past summer when he was recognized at synod assembly for celebrating an ordination anniversary. I was happy to know that he had stayed in ministry and even came to the assembly. He received our applause with solemn appreciation. I wonder if he was thinking of Mike.
I was...and I am today, too.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
- The separation between church and state is juxtaposed when the voting for public officials takes place in churches...like today at the church where I work
- Nothing encapsulates the current Lutheran drama more than the existence of two distinct Lutheran Study Bibles.
- The people in the Midwest towns of Milan, Tripoli, Guttenberg, New Prague, Madrid, and Orion must have difficulty learning phonetics
- If your computer crashes in the midst of typing something, is that God trying to tell you not to write it?
- Can we please limit the number of special edition / director's cut / extended footage versions of movies on DVD? I don't want to buy a movie and then find out 2 years later that it's not the complete version.
- My 1st grader is already asking for an iPod
- I'm starting to think that it's harder to understand the formula for credit scores than the BCS college football rankings
- I could easily do 85% of my job away from my office
- Adults are usually worse at handling inter-personal conflict than kids
- 4 children died of hunger in the time it took you to read this...and over 100 died in the time it took me to write this random crap
- When someone says, "you look just like _____" I always feel bad for the other person
What's on your mind today?
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Click here to see what they're all about. I'm taking my two young boys to visit sparkhouse on Friday. I'll let you know what we find out.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Elizabeth Merrill also logged an excellent article about the A-P football team, which includes links to additional Coach Thomas video footage.
Aplington-Parkersburg opens their season against Dike-New Hartford on Friday night. The game will be televised on ESPN at 6:00 p.m. CST.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber (blogger, pastor, author, friend) offered a sermon today that incorporated both the appointed gospel lesson for today and what happened at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly this week. Reading things like this make me happy for the church...for the Luthermergent conversation...and for my sister, who is a member at Nadia's church.
Read the entire sermon here
...and then a young pastor got up to speak at the green microphone and the first thing he said, in a quivering voice was “anyone else frightened to speak? I’m shaking. Please pray for me” and the man standing right next to him in at the red microphone reached over and laid his hand on him and prayed while his brother of the opposing view point spoke. Then I knew that Jesus was really in between the red and green microphones. Not in some sort of neutral “Jesus as Switzerland” sort of way, but in the you must lose your life to gain it sort of way. Jesus is between the red and the green microphones…between the red and the blue states offering us life and salvation in the Words of eternal life and in the Sacrament of his own body and blood. Jesus right there between the liberals and conservatives speaking the word that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Tonight is the first cigar night that I've been alone...
...well, with God, that is.
I've spent most of the week following the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly on-line. As I've listened to the sexuality discussions in the plenary sessions, I rarely paid attention to the personal stories of those at the microphones. For whatever reason, I wanted to wrap my head around the various points of view on the issues at hand and not invest in the attempts of people to tug at my heart strings. I desired to sift through agendas, motions, and amendments so I could come to a clear understanding of what was being debated and how it would impact the church.
So it is odd that, as God and I share a cigar on this night, we're spending a lot of time talking about people...stories...friends.
We're thinking of the gay, life-long Lutheran who couldn't come to terms his own homosexuality until his church did.
We're thinking of the Bible scholar who desperately wanted to vote "yes" on the social statement on sexuality and the resolutions on ministry policies, but couldn't do it because of those darn verses in Scripture that condemn homosexuality.
We're thinking of the old couple who will never again call themselves a Lutheran because they feel their church turned its back on God's Word.
We're thinking of the woman who recently fell in love with another woman and will finally begin the process of becoming a pastor because she can do so without fear of being defrocked.
We're thinking of the faithful, devout, compassionate mother who feels like a bigot for not wanting to be in a church where openly gay people in committed relationships can serve as her pastor.
We're thinking of person who will start going to church again because the church has said that he's fully welcome.
We're thinking of the pastor who can't wait to bless the union of gay couples in his congregation.
* * *
It's been a good conversation. We haven't solved any problems per se, but it has been important to consider the personal implications of this corporate decision. Some interesting days lie ahead.
The cigar has disappeared into the night sky. Our conversation is done, for now. The conversations with the aforementioned friends will begin anew in the days ahead. I only hope that I will be able to speak to everyone with the kind of grace, patience, and respect that Lutherans have been able to show one another in these last few days.
"We meet one another finally, not in our agreements or our disagreements, but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ." ~ Bishop Mark Hanson
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Having heard much of the plenary debates and read hundreds of blogs and Twitter posts, I've come to the conclusion that this Assembly has very little to do with SEX and everything to do with SCRIPTURE...or, more specifically, the authority of Scripture.
Based on what I've heard and read, the Lutherans seem to find themselves in one of three groups:
Group #1 - Scripture Says No
There are many who are wanting to elevate the authority of Scripture within the Lutheran tradition. These folks feel that Scripture is clear that God doesn't agree with homosexuality. They argue there is no Scriptural basis for allowing openly gay people in committed, monogamous relationships to serve as pastors. Not only is Scripture clear on this issue, but these verses are and should be the primary place we look for guidance.
Group # 2 - Scripture Says Yes
Folks in this group believe that the whole of Scripture focuses on a God that forgives and redeems sinners and the ways in which they turn against God. They reference stories where Jesus seeks out the outcast, unclean, un-religious crowd and shows them grace and love. These people talk about the "old law" being thrown out with the "new law" of love of neighbor. They argue that it's not our place to judge what might or might not be a sin.
Group #3 - Scripture Isn't the Only Authority
This group lives in the tension. They believe that Scripture is filled with laws - some that we adhere to and some that we dismiss. They tend to look at the specific "homosexual" verses as well as the stories about Jesus equipping broken sinners with gifts for ministry. In addition, people in this group believe that Scripture is one of several voices that should be considered in debates. Church history, personal experience, and the individual & corporate discernment of the Holy Spirit are all equally important factors for this group. People in this group appear to be genuinely conflicted on the sexuality social statement & ministry policy resolutions, but tend to be in favor of their passage.
From my perspective, the group that is "most Lutheran" is #3. Lutherans believe that Scripture is inspired by God and functions as the "source and norm" for our spiritual lives. Scripture is instructive and faith-formative. It does not, however, stand alone as authoritative. Luther indicated that three things - grace, faith and Scripture - provide guidance and wisdom to the church. All three "solas" are gifts of God that carry equal weight and importance.
(Note: some reformers had 5 solas...and Wesley had his quadrilateral. All were formed under a similar premise that Scripture was important within the context of other aspects of a life of Christian faith.)
The Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust social statement passed by the narrowest of margins - exactly 2/3. As many as 3% of voters didn't cast a vote (for whatever reason). The four recommendations on ministry policies only require a 50% + 1 vote. It appears to some that the passage of these recommendations on Friday is a foregone conclusion. Still questions remain...
- What is God's will for our church?
- What role does Scripture play in our discernment?
- How will the other 4.599 million Lutherans who aren't gathered in Assembly respond to social statement and ministry policies?
Monday, August 17, 2009
I got sucked in to geeking the ELCA Churchwide Assembly live-feed and simultaneously following the #CWA09 tags on Twitter. This was a fantastic experience for me. Not only could I watch the event in my sweatpants with my feet up, but I could read snarky comments from fellow church nerds as the plenary session unfolded.
The big debate at Plenary #1 was whether or not to require a 2/3 vote to change ministry policies. Roberts Rules of Order calls for a 50% + 1 majority. Some people felt that requiring a 2/3 vote would be more appropriate when considering the weight of the 4 resolutions proposed by the Sexuality Task Force. Ultimately, the Assembly decided to reject the amendment and allow ministry policies to be changed with a simple majority.
For many, the passage of the 4 sexuality resolutions is now considered a foregone conclusion. People that I've spoken with in the past few weeks think it will be a 60/40 vote in favor of allowing openly gay people in committed relationships to serve as ordained ELCA pastors. Obviously nobody really knows until the votes are cast on Friday night, but I tend to agree with my "insider" friends. The resolutions wouldn't pass at 2/3...but likely will at 50% +1.
The contrarian in me thinks there has to be a better way to go about "being church" than to spend 2 hours debating parliamentary procedure...but I can't come up with a better suggestion. So, in the meantime, I will have fun following the Assembly on-line.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Unbeknownst to most people in Iowa, the community of Eldora was hammered with two huge storms this past Sunday. I had an opportunity to spend a few hours with some young people doing clean-up work on Tuesday.
Click here to see the pictures I took.
A few reflections from my time in Eldora:
- I spoke with an insurance adjuster who told me that EVERY building in town will need a new roof
- Most of the crops in Hardin County were wiped out by the hail. Corn stalks that were 7-8 feet tall stood only a few inches off the ground
- Community leaders in town were very well-organized and ready to receive volunteers
- We worked with a guy who was on vacation with his family at nearby Pine Lake. He intended to spend his entire week serving as a crew-leader
- Over 1/2 of the volunteers we saw were under the age of 18
- One man from Ames took the day off from work and brought his daughter to help
- Many of the vehicles and all buildings looked like they were fired upon with machine guns
- I can't understand why this didn't get much more attention in the press
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
If you're one of the dozen people who have asked me that question in the past few days, consider this your answer.
The last few days of the trip were jam-packed with events...and it's unsafe to blog while driving...and one of our cameras broke...and the dog ate my homework.
Choose whichever excuse works best for you.
* * *
Now, on to the pictures:
Being the light of the world, one bulb at a time
More light bulb installation in Kenner
We have our clipboards, light bulbs, and fancy orange t-shirts
Our nightly group meeting at the pool side
The fabulous crew of adult leaders
The sign as we departed Concordia Lutheran Church in Sikeston, MO
(our overnight stay on the way home)
Monday, July 27, 2009
* * * * *
Lost... that was what I was at the start of this trip. As some have noticed we started our trip a few days before the Youth Gathering started. We were doing our yearly trip to Jackson, Mississippi. The trip was going wonderfully... until a few particular hard questions came up in discussions. While I was trying to think of my answers I realized I didn't know what to think and I found that I didn't know what to think because I didn't know who I was.
It wasn't amnesia. I knew my name, age, address, family... everything about me... everything but my face. I couldn't picture my face in my mind... I started to get scared and even more confused. When I thought of the others around me I could see their face, remember their actions, hear their voice... but when I thought of myself I could only see my hands and feet, my arms and legs. Only the portions of me that I don't need a mirror to see.
As I was trying to muddle my was through this confusion I didn't want to be alone, but I started to become more distant from the group... the group wouldn't let me go. As we arrived in New Orleans the sleeping arrangements were different from those we had in Jackson, so I had new roommates. Due to the new roommates I got to know people better than I did before the trip, but I still didn't completely know myself. And the simplest of actions held me together, holding hands as we traversed the crowded streets around the dome and convention center, hugs (even when they were to comfort another), late night talks, etc.
I knew I was lost before I came on this trip. I was hoping it would help me find my way back to the light... it did. Even though the people around me didn't know what I was trying to deal with they were helpful by just being themselves. The goofy guys who provided comical relief, the girls who know how to hold deep and meaningful conversations, and the leaders who kept us all together. While we were in the interaction center we interacted with one another as well as the other groups with us. We kept mixing up the groups depending on what we wanted to do. The gathering helped us break down some of the walls in the group.
The Gathering provided an opportunity to worship with 36,000 people... that is an experience I would jump at the chance to do again. My epiphany came as we were worshiping. The Bishop told us a story about how his daughter had a time in her life were she was being torn by two halves, her white friends and her black friends, she was scared too. He then told us that we needed to remember our baptism, for in our baptism God claims us as his children. It was after this that my eyes started to get watery. I realized that what I had been looking for wasn't a face that I could see in a mirror. What I was looking for was a new path to God.
I remember that in the faith statement I wrote in ninth grade I wrote something like: I know God will always be with me in my times of doubt, and will welcome me with open arms when I find him again. Today at worship he welcomed me with open arms that I gladly accepted.
The Gathering has been so much more meaningful to me than I had ever expected it to be. From the interaction center to our day of service, the dome events to talking with the people of New Orleans, and the final gathering to worship.
Before the Gathering I was waiting for God to find me, but now I know he never lost me, I was the one who lost myself. Now as I picture myself in my mind I don't see images only of my hands and feet. I see a child of God who lost her way, but now she is wrapped safely in his arms. She is no longer lost, wandering on unknown paths. She has found God's grace.
* * * * *
Letting our light shine, one light bulb at a time
The Servant Learning day made the most impact on me at the ELCA National Youth Gathering. The first couple days, I loved experiencing the huge, mile-long interaction center, 37,000-person Superdome, and abounding city, but I felt like those events were mostly geared for my enjoyment, to build me up. Speakers continually thanked us for being here, and our group of 12,000 had not yet done any service. I anticipated Saturday.
Our service project was with an organization called Green Light New Orleans, which provides free CFL light bulbs to lower-income neighborhoods in order to be more energy efficient and produce less carbon dioxide. This saves people a great deal of money on purchasing light bulbs, as they last 5-7 years, and on their monthly electric bills. As the name alludes, these compact fluorescent lights also preserve the environment by contributing less to greenhouse gases and climate change.
On Saturday, our group of 23 youth and adults from Windsor Heights Lutheran combined with two other groups and took a bus to Kennan, LA. Then we were sent to different apartments in small groups. I really enjoyed entering people’s houses to change all of their light bulbs, because not only were we making an immediate difference in a pretty simple way (especially because I’m tall J), but we were literally immersed in Southern culture in a new way. Each home we visited was friendly and welcoming. One woman expressed her view of the dangers of New Orleans, while her two-year-old son showed us all his cool toys one by one. Another lady was simply amazed at our openness to change her light bulbs, asking questions such as, “Oh, can you maybe do my bedroom too? Oh you can do the kitchen too?”
They were all very appreciative, and I thought it was pretty fun work anyway – we got to be in nice air-conditioned apartments, meet people, and change their light bulbs. As easy as that. They were glad that we traveled from Iowa to make a difference around New Orleans. The friendliness and hospitality caught my eye. Most of them knew that the neighbor to the left did not get home from work until 3, and many opened their doors and asked, “Oh are you here with the light bulbs? We got some too!”
Think about it – not many people I know that live near me back home would be open to four teenagers and two adults walking through every room of their houses, seeing how they live, even if it was to give them free stuff. (We install the bulbs). We can tend to be self-conscious about messes or overprotective of our material belongings. We’d rather take the easy way out sometimes, rather than make a change, even if it’s for the better. My house in Iowa still has regular incandescent light bulbs, either because we did not know the depth of the benefits of CFLs, or we were just not willing to spend the extra dollar to make a positive long-term change. Overall, this fun experience helped us bond with the people and each other while directly benefiting them and the environment. It also taught us to be open to improvements and support of others.
In the spiritual sense, it was cool to literally spread God’s light to the world. Along with the physical help of the new light bulbs, I hope the people can respect the kindness of our Christian group and know that we truly want to help. I hope they can feel the love, which is first the love of Christ shining through us. Slowly we can hopefully take away the hypocritical Christian perspective that some have and bring them to Christ too. “May they see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.” –(Matthew 5:16) Works also grow us, as Christians, because we must act selflessly for others and we therefore become more like Jesus. Philippians 2:1-8 were some theme verses for the Gathering, continuously scrolling across a screen in the dome, reminding us to live humbly like Christ, placing others before ourselves, in order to live for God.
Saturday night’s dome event, (singing worship songs, listening to speakers and music, and learning) and Sunday’s sermon were especially moving for me. A couple speakers talked about God working strongly through our work. We may be just one person, having a little light, but God binds us all together in one body of Christ to be powerful. Saturday night, we each took out our cell phones and cameras in the dark dome, and watched it light up all around us. 37,000 little lights. It was an amazing sight! Later, we also sang some well-known worship songs with the band The Katinas, which got people really excited for God! You could feel the energy and joy in that huge room, which once held the homeless people after Hurricane Katrina! We were helping God bring good out of the pain! I really liked the song “I Am Free”: “through you the blind will see, through you the dead will rise…I am free to run…I am free to live for You!”
On Sunday we heard the story of Jesus’s miracle of Feeding the Five Thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. Andrew and Phillip did not give up, and Jesus worked a miracle through the little they had. In the same way, God still uses us today. No talent or effort is too small for God to use to serve His people for His glory! Isn’t that awesome? If we come to Him with the little we have, such as one day of service in New Orleans, He can make more great things happen as a result, encourage more people to act, or change lives forever!
So let’s go out, with our one light bulb, shining with the everlasting power of Christ, not only for 7 years, but for eternity.
P.S. The “Found” blog touched my heart – I’m so happy for you!! God is amazing! He is Life! Amen!
Sunday, July 26, 2009
How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?... How many times have we all heard that one before... but what I want to know is how much does the simple act of changing light bulb affect people?
Today during our day of serving we were told that we were going to change light bulbs in apartments for Green Light New Orleans, not many of us were completely thrilled with the idea, but we soon warmed up to the task after the realization hit that changing light bulbs can help a home owner with the amount of energy they consume but also help the environment.
The small group I was a part of met a very kind elderly lady. Our team adult sat with her chatting, while we busily scurried around changing her lights. We changed a total of 32 lights in her house. We replaced the old bulbs with new ones that would last for five to eight years. Over the period of five years those seemingly insignificant bulbs will save her a little over $1400 ... 32 bulbs that would cost an owner around $80 to purchase would save so much more. Those bulbs won't only save money, they also cut down the amount of energy that is wasted by normal bulbs and the amount of carbon dioxide produced. But what was most meaningful was the kind lady's face after we told her what those 32 little bulbs would do.
* * * * *
I never thought that by changing a light bulb could make such a difference in the world, and change the lives of others around me.
So when my church group found out that our service work was going to be screwing in light bulbs, we were like, "what the heck!?!? What can we accomplish by screwing light bulbs?' But sitting here now I have never been happier to screw in a bunch of light bulbs.
Because by screwing in those light bulbs myself and many other people were able to meet and connect with some really amazing and giving people. Also by screwing in those light bulbs we were able to help alot of people save hundreds of dollars.
I just don't know how to express the emotions that I felt today by bonding with those people. I just want to thank Green Light New Orleans so much for bringing the group together to meet new people. Also by having this non-profit organization donate the free light bulbs, and help thousands of people save a lot of money.
Thank you so much Green Light New Orleans!!!
* * * * *
38,000. That’s lot of Lutherans! You’d think that that would be overwhelming right? But it’s surprisingly the opposite, it’s humbling. When you live in your own little town of Des Moines in my case you feel powerful and important, but when you enter the Superdome and see all those people singing, dancing, and praising you feel so small. You feel powerless and unimportant. You feel like nothing. But then I remember that God doesn’t care where you come from, who your with, or how you praise. All he cares about is you, good old Iowa living corn picking you.
These past few days have been unexplainable. I’ll go home on Sunday and try to explain this week but I know I will be unsuccessful. You can’t feel what we’re feeling unless you are here which is a shame because the love and the security that I’m sure everyone is feeling (although I can’t speak for them) is unimaginable. Everywhere you turn there are kind hearted, loving Lutherans who welcome you with open arms. But I think this city would be this amazing with or without the Lutherans. Before the disaster they were residents of the same city, afterwards they are an extended family. They welcome anyone and everyone. Walking through the streets of Des Moines you feel welcome, but when has a complete stranger stopped you and thanked you for coming to their town? People will tell you their life stories in the middle of the street, and to most people that would seem distracting and just another thing that slows their busy selfish life down. But I have not found one selfish person here or in Jackson. This town has literally made us their own, and that is the most amazing feeling. Coming into a city for 4 days and becoming practically a citizen.
Not only is this city amazing but this convention is amazing. They have gathered the best of the best (and I’m not just talking about the Lutherans). The speakers that we get to hear every night are truly amazing. They are changing the world every day and getting everyone to join them city by city. They have made me believe that I can do the impossible. I can change the world, even if it’s with small acts. I don’t have to be old or powerful or even have to live in a big city. I can change the world from Johnston, Iowa. I can change the world at 17. The world can be good one day, I truly believe that. The world can be at peace. There can be justice in the world. And most important of all… everyone can love each other. I can say firsthand that I have been in a room where I felt love coming from over 38,000 people. How many people can say that?! (I mean besides the more than 38,000 people that were in the room).
God has made an amazing world, and amazing people to be in it. And I hope and pray that the almost 7 billion people in the amazing world we live in will one day come together and make this world a place of justice, peace, and above all else love.